Just how many of us are walking on a road to nowhere, either literally or figuratively? Do you wonder about the path you are headed down in life? Can the dead end road I am walking on through Deschutes National Forest be a metaphor for our lives? And, does walking on whatever road you are seemingly walking to nowhere on, actually end up leading to enlightenment?
On a Monday at the end of November I am walking through the forest without a jacket. The temperature reads 55F at noon, and the sun is shining. There usually is snow by now at this elevation at this time of year. Our local ski area has no idea if and when they will open this year. Two weeks ago, at this same place, birds were everywhere. Today they are gone. The silence of the forest is briefly interrupted by a helicopter flying overhead, probably a COCC aviation student on a training flight. A moment later, the forest turns silent again.
I am grateful to enjoy the solitude and peace of the moment, yet am concerned about the state of the world and my place in it. Natural and man made disasters which have always happened throughout time, but now appear with astonishing frequency. The new Omicron variant of the corona virus just arrived in the USA and is of great concern. Our nation is incredibly divided, more than I’ve even seen in my lifetime. Inflation is rearing its ugly head. People feel powerless. It seems like we are going nowhere as a nation. Sometimes, I feel like I have lost my mission in life. You may also feel that your own life is headed down the road to nowhere. But, what are we going to do about it?
We’re all trying to get to somewhere, and that somewhere is individually different for each of us. Recently semi-retired, I walk the literal road to Nowhere inside of Deschutes National Forest and think about where the rest of my life is going. How will I live what’s left of my life here on planet earth?
If life was a football game, I’d be in the fourth quarter now. Maybe some of you readers are only still in the first half. I’ve made a few fumbles before halftime, but now it’s time to focus and start playing and trying to score, before time runs out and the game is over.
We are playing the game of life and Father Time is on the other team. Even we cannot vanquish that foe, we should all strive to play the game gallantly. It is important to remember that life is also a team sport. The best that we can hope for is to play for a tie, so that we might force an overtime. By doing so, other members of our team who come after us can continue playing. We think of this so our children can enjoy playing the game without starting out way behind in the score. This is what I am thinking about as I walk down the road to nowhere.
On the right side of this road is a barbed wire fence. Immediately, I think that a fence negates the concept of Nowhere. A fence is a border that separates two different districts. Doesn’t that mean it separates a Somewhere from a Somewhere else? Therefore, I must be Somewhere now….
Nowheres and Somewheres are often Socially Constructed, as my Sociologist friend might say. Social Construction of reality implies that our brain must have a way of structuring all of the information gathered by our senses. This construction is influenced by our interactions with others, which creates a shared understanding of reality. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound? And do we need a border or a fence to codify our social identity? Would America be Amerika without a border wall? Would the cold war have looked differently if there were not a Berlin Wall? Would there be less animosity between Jews and Palestinians if there were no separation wall? Would I be nowhere if I didn’t see this barbed wire fence next to the road?
A fence may give us the idea that “our side” is somewhere, while what is on the other side of the fence is “nowhere”. In our ethnocentric society, anywhere outside of the USA is often either reviled, or worse yet, ignored. I’ve tried to dedicate my life’s work to teaching about the meaning of “Place.” The decline of Geography teaching in our schools is a casualty of our ethnocentric outlook. The result is continued racism, an increase in jingoism, both of which are impediments to critical thinking and problem solving. In other words, a path down a deteriorating dirt road that leads to nowhere. How sustainable is our way of life under that paradigm?
Thinking about these concepts brings me to how I might apply them to a new class in Sustainability that I will be teaching Winter term. Sustainability implies meeting the needs of the present without jeopardizing the needs of the future. Although I am not scheduled to teach any Geography this year, I will incorporate a lot of global issues in the teaching of the course which is titled, “Creating a More Sustainable Society”. Among other topics, the students will research NGOs and where successful sustainability projects have been implemented around the world. In the process, they will gain knowledge about ecosystems and cultures around the world. Then, each student will teach the rest of the class about what they have learned. Students, who are naturally trying to find their places in this world, will need to know more about the world that they live in, in order to find the niche they will make for themselves in it. To find your place in the world, you have to study the whole world!
The students will also help me direct my efforts as to what to do with the rest of the time I have on this planet. There are so many worthwhile things that I could devote my energies to, which makes the task of researching them so daunting. The students and I will teach one another about sustainability projects and in doing so, will help me sort out which ones I will devote my time and money to.
As I walk down the road, the fence line leaves the side of the road and heads into the forest. I decide to leave the road and follow the fence line. In about 1/2 mile, there is a break in the fence, as one of the posts holding the barbed wire has fallen down. It is a safe place to cross to the other side.
Upon crossing to the other side, I am now exploring new territory. I am certainly somewhere now, or at least in somewhere else. But if you asked most people, either side of the fence could equally be considered to be nowhere. However, if I didn’t have this nowhere to sojourn through, where would I go to figure out where I wanted to go in life? I wonder….will this opportunity still be available at this place ten years into the future?
But how do we quantify the value of nowhere? And whose values are we quantifying? A remark by the poet Gary Snyder comes to mind, as he climbed to the top of Glacier Peak in Washington and had a 360 view of the wilderness which stretched to all horizons. You could see most of the state of Washington from this vantage point. His hiking companion, awed by the view, asked “Wow! You mean there is a senator for all of this?”
“Actually, there isn’t”, he replied. The senator’s constituents do not include non-human life forms. Deer, bear, rabbits don’t vote. Neither do Spruce or Hemlock. One could look out and quantify the value of the board feet of timber. Others might value hunting or fishing. Some, like me, think about the value to mental health, both individually and societally.
The very next night, after an urban hike with friends on the last day of November, I returned to a similar nowhere place to camp for the night. The temperature was 62F when I left town. Winds were calm. After dark, I built a small fire. I sat in my camp chair sipping an adult beverage and cogitated about how to address the decline in Geographic awareness in our society, as well as how to readdress my mission after the college I worked for is no longer supporting the program. I felt that we need much more than teachers of Geography….we need a cadre of Citizen Geographers. That includes you, dear readers. I will outline ways what that really means and your role in it in a subsequent post. And it won’t cost you any money!
Peace be with you, and may your eyes open to the world around you.